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The Literature of Persecution and Intolerance:

A Review of Two Current Bestsellers That Resonate with American Anxieties in a Post-September 11 World


Friday, Jan. 07, 2005
Philip Roth, The Plot Against America (Houghton Mifflin 2004)

Stephen Greenblatt, Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare (W.W. Norton & Co. 2004)

Philip Roth's The Plot Against America is a novel about a New Jersey family in the 1940s. Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare is a literary biography of England's greatest playwright, born in the middle Sixteenth Century. Superficially, they could hardly be more different - though both share the honor of being New York Times bestsellers.

Yet, as I will explain, the books have more in common than is, at first, apparent: Both books speak to our post-September 11 world. And both offer messages of hope in this period of increasing anxiety and intolerance.

An American Fascism: The Plot of The Plot Against America

The Plot Against America begins in the summer of 1940, when the heroic and isolationist pilot Charles Lindbergh makes a surprise bid to become president of the United States. In the novel, Lindbergh soundly defeats FDR, running on a platform of "preserving American democracy by staying out of the war in Europe." The country drifts toward a soft fascism--one that is rooted in a fierce anti-Semitism.

Roth tells the story from the perspective of his fictional counterpart's boyhood self. The narrative thus interweaves national and international news with the domestic life of the Roth family, and the inner life of young Philip.

The close-knit Roths live in a Jewish neighborhood in Newark, New Jersey, and Lindbergh's measures throw the family into conflict. Roth's father resolves to fight the encroaching fascism by challenging the increasingly draconian policies. Meanwhile, another relative moves to Kentucky as part of a Lindbergh program called "Just Folk" -- which disperses urban Jews to rural parts of middle America and teaches them to farm and enjoy eating bacon.

No wonder, then, that Philip wistfully remarks, "in an ordinary family living room--traditionally the staging area for the collective effort to hold the line against the intrusions of a hostile world--the anti-Semites were about to be abetted in their exhilarating solution to America's worst problem by our taking up the cudgels and hysterically destroying ourselves."

Ultimately, as power centralizes in the White House, the U.S. becomes an ally to Hitler's Germany and Japan. Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter is arrested, and the United States is placed under martial law.

Philip notes that, when this occurs, the country "remains calm, though the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and the leader of the American Nazi Party have jointly called on the acting president to 'implement extreme measures to protect America from a Jewish coup d'etat.'" "[D]espite the imposition of martial law and a nationwide curfew, and despite the presence of heavily armed National Guard troops," anti-Semitic riots break out across the country, which the government subsequently blames on "Jewish provocateurs" seeking to take control of the federal government.

Philip narrates these and many other seemingly unthinkable events in an eerily matter-of-fact voice, providing ample detail. In tone and thoroughness, this fictional account might almost be mistaken for nonfiction.

Life and Art: Speculating About How Shakespeare's Life Influenced His Plays

In contrast, Harvard Professor and respected literary critic Stephen Greenblatt offers a nonfiction account, one that is written in an easy, learned manner -- but one that frequently seems highly speculative. (Interestingly, given Roth's clear detail, and Greenblatt's vague suggestiveness, reading these books together may create in the reader an odd, slightly disconcerting feeling that Roth's story is actually "truer" than Greenblatt's.)

Will in the World attempts to connect Shakespeare's life and times with his prolific output and his literary genius. Accordingly, there is much conjecture and surmise - with Greenblatt often asking "Could it have been this way?" rather than stating "It was this way."

Typically, Greenblatt will allude to an event in the Bard's life; presents text from a play, suggesting possible similarities; and allows the reader to decide how and how much Shakespeare might have tapped his own life for dramatic material.

For example, Greenblatt observes that the strong presence of legal situations and terms in the plays might have been the result of young Shakespeare working as a clerk in a law office. But there is no record of Shakespeare actually doing so - though there is a period in which there is no record of Shakespeare's whereabouts. Had Shakespeare worked in a law office, Greenblatt points out, he could have become familiar with the process of sealing documents - and that would explain a reference in "Venus and Adonis."

Similarly, Greenblatt suggests Shakespeare's interest in real estate investments might have resulted, for example, in references in the key scene in "Hamlet" where characters converse over a skull found in a graveyard. (Hamlet observes the deceased might have been a great buyer of land, with his "statutes, his recognizances, his fines, his double vouchers, his recoveries" - all arcane elements of property law.)

In a sense, Will in the World is not only a literary biography, it is also a course in Shakespeare's more than twenty major works. Unfortunately, it also assumes knowledge of all of these works -citing long passages without any context. Yet, on the whole, it is an engaging and educational work, and Greenblatt does justice to the dramatic story of the playwright's life.

The Books' Relevance to Our Time: Portraits of Intolerance, Subtle and Plain

In their different ways, Roth's and Greenblatt's books each address the subject of intolerance. The point is obvious when it comes to Roth's book - which offers an alternative history depicting intolerance as a key engine that might have changed the outcome of World War II, and undermined American democracy. But in its own, more subtle way, Greenblatt's book takes on the topic of intolerance, too.

As Greenblatt explains, in the decades immediately before Shakespeare's birth, the official faith of England flip-flopped several times between Catholicism and Protestantism - according to the predilections of the King or Queen in power. The ruling religion of the moment imposed harsh measures on the other - forcing non-believers to attend the state church, suffer financial penalties, and sometimes even endure physical punishment.

This cruelty culminated when Elizabeth - a Protestant - assumed the throne in 1559, and centralized power in the Crown to a level previously unknown in England. Elizabeth, who gave her name to Shakespeare's age, and who ruled longer than almost any other English royal, was particularly vicious to Catholics. Priests were forced to convert or else they were exiled. Mass was outlawed. Those found carrying Catholic prayer beads were tortured or exiled. Participation at state-sponsored churches was mandatory, with attendance taken and fines levied upon absent citizens.

Shakespeare's mother was a practicing Catholic. His father - though a local administrator for the Protestant Crown - secretly practiced Catholicism, at great risk. But Shakespeare's wife, Anne Hathaway, almost certainly came from a Protestant family. Associates of his family were humiliated -- and even executed -- for their beliefs.

Shakespeare's own religious beliefs are unclear, but his characters seem frequently skeptical of any religion. No wonder - as Shakespeare must have seen religious intolerance graphically illustrated. "London was a nonstop theater of punishments," Greenblatt writes, surmising that Shakespeare must have frequently walked past public hangings and disembowelments.

Yet, Greenblatt explains, in spite of these frequent state-imposed penalties, Elizabethan officials constantly "worried about any public spectacle that they could not control." Greenblatt notes that even small gatherings of "a handful of people" would alarm authorities, who would dispatch spies to taverns to eavesdrop on conversations and report anything suspicious. The theater was no exception - and so Shakespeare learned to only indirectly reference current political events in his plays.

Shakespeare lived, in short, in a surveillance society in which falling on the wrong side of the official state belief system could be fatal. In this sense, the world Greenblatt depicts is not so different from the one Roth depicts.

Another Age of Intolerance? American in 2005

Are we, too, living in that kind of society?

Certainly, we endure increasing forms of surveillance. The USA PATRIOT Act and related FBI regulations now allow federal agents to monitor houses of worship and to search without a warrant under broadly-defined circumstances. There have been proposals - which have, fortunately, proven unsuccessful -- to have people report their neighbors' unusual behavior to law enforcement officials. Peaceful demonstrators are filmed by police with helmet-mounted cameras. Law enforcement officials attend groups' meetings incognito. And a majority of Americans say they will sacrifice some of their Constitutional rights for a feeling of security if asked to choose - opening the door for further incursions on our privacy, and our freedoms of thought, speech, and association.

Meanwhile, if there is not formally an official belief system in America, we are coming close - and those who do not concur, may deemed suspects. Since September 11, Americans have been increasing suspicious - indeed, intolerant. Repeated polls show that most Americans approve of racial profiling. A recent report found that almost half of people surveyed believe that Muslims in the United States should have their civil liberties curtailed.

Rather than correcting these prejudices, the government, by its actions, only amplifies them. After September 11, government officials detained thousands of Muslim and Arab-Americans without counsel, and deported them on the thinnest of charges - as if national origin, itself, were proof of guilt. Evening news reports detail unspeakable tales of abuse and humiliation in overseas military prisons. Even this week, Alberto Gonzales is the President's nominee for U.S. Attorney General, despite the fact that he approved memos that effectively condone torturing foreigners.

Why These Books Speak to Us Now

It's no surprise, then, that The Plot Against America and Will in the World resonate with us. Their heroes experience heightened suspicion, intolerance and violence toward minority groups. Yet through their own actions and decisions - and a degree of luck, they are able to challenge their societies' intolerance, survive, and perhaps even triumph.

In The Plot Against America, young Philip comes to appreciate his father's resistance to President Lindbergh's intolerant speeches. He also comes to admire his father's pride in being a Jew and taking care of his family -- even when it means sacrifice; his father loses his stable insurance job, and must accept a difficult manual labor position at a family member's store.

Similarly, Greenblatt shows us how Shakespeare was able to negotiate the waters of an age filled with religious intolerance and mob violence - and, at the same time, to write plays about the dangers of both.

We may not have the courage to be like Philip's fictional father, who drives overnight from Newark to Kentucky to rescue a family friend during a period of the worst anti-Semitic rioting of the time. Nor is any of us likely to have the talent of Shakespeare - who managed to immortalize stinging critiques of religious persecution in his plays. Yet we do know - and these books remind us -- that small acts of personal courage can make a difference.

Noah Leavitt, an attorney and author, reviews books for FindLaw. He is the Advocacy Director of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs. Leavitt can be contacted at

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